On Friday, a group of panelists from Flint, Detroit, Highland Park and Muskegon Heights spoke at the University to discuss water access and management in communities of color as part of an event for Black Heritage Month.
Each panelist had a different expertise including research, science, political and activist backgrounds. All of the panelists agreed, however, that water is a public good that should be available for every person to access.
Leon Howard, program manager in the Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs and moderator of the event, said the Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs wanted this event to address concerns about water access in communities of color and to delve into why the management of water has tremendous impacts on communities.
“We wanted to do a panel focused on water access and management in communities of color because of what was going on in Flint and other places across the state when it comes to being able to access safe water,” he said.
One of the topics of the panel was the ongoing effect of water crises as well as long-term solutions.
Panelist Dr. Terry Thompson, assistant professor of the Department of Public Health and Health Sciences at the University of Michigan-Flint, has been working with a team of researchers on community-based participatory research for what he calls the '91st day.' He said the 91st day occurs after media coverage slows down and emergency funds stop coming.
“As you know, emergency funds, water and all this usually happens for 90 days. But what we’re interested in is what happens on the 91st day after CNN has gone," he said. “So that’s what we’re interested in. We’ve got to find explicitly what is it that is needed, what is that gap.”
The event featured videos including from the local Fox News channel, “Let it Rip: Flint water crisis special” and “When the Water Runs Dry: Voices from the Detroit Water Crisis.”
Panelist Dr. Jerome Nriagu, a recently retired professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the School of Public Health, said he has done work on childhood lead poisoning in Flint and Detroit with a focus on the future of the water source. Nriagu said many of the solutions to decontaminate the water that were discussed in the Fox News video such as treating river water will not work even in the short term.
“First of all, somebody says you can treat Flint River water, the answer is no,” he said. “Because it’s contaminated with organic compounds and we still don’t know how to remove some of these organic compounds from any river water. So the idea that you can treat river water, from my own research experience, is false.”
Both Thompson and Nriagu discussed the possibility of removing and replacing the pipes of contaminated communities as a long-term solution to the water crises. Thompson said the procedure for removing pipes is not too complicated and takes a few hours, adding that community members should be trained to replace the pipes so they can feel involved.
“The people would feel that they are part of the solution and that confidence in itself will do so much for a community,” Thompson said.
All panelists said they agreed that that it is important for communities to feel empowered and to use their voices to show what the media will not show.
While much of the conversation in the media about water has been centered on Flint, panelist Alexis Ramsey, a charter commissioner for the city of Highland Park, said in 2014 it was reported that over 1,000 children in Highland Park had higher lead levels than the children of Flint and that there had been a 35 percent increase in water bills for bad water.
“We just want people to understand that we are fighting the same fight, no different than Flint, and our citizens and residents are facing the same thing,” said Ramsey.
Panelist Kim Sims, mayor of Muskegon Heights, noted that her city was one of several that avoided hiring an emergency manager, which Flint had while the crisis was unfolding. She added that her city has its own water filtration plant, saying she hoped to learn from the other panelists about water management.
“We do have our own water filtration plant that we own and operate completely,” she said. “At this point we are our own customers because we had two customers who decided to leave us for another municipality. I’m hoping to gain some knowledge actually while I’m here and assist the conversation however I can.”
Panelists also discussed the evident health issues facing the children of Flint.
Panelist and activist Monica Lewis-Patrick, co-founder of We the People of Detroit which aims to provide resources for Detroit citizens to better their quality of life, said children have already started showing health problems from the contamination.
“One of the things we know from working on the ground in Flint for almost two years is that teachers are already reporting that they are seeing behavioral issues and acting out increased in the classrooms,” said Lewis-Patrick. “We also know that with these children, especially poor white, Black or brown children will be more likely to be incarcerated as opposed to being treated.”
Charles Ransom, Multicultural Studies librarian at the University Library, served on the committee that organized events for Black History Month. He said this event related to Black History Month because water crises are primarily happening in communities with a large population of African Americans.
“Just like what the speakers were saying, most of the cities that have been affected by the water issues are chocolate cities, they are Black cities,” he said. “It seems to follow the same script — the city loses money, the city has an asset, it’s water or it’s the water treatment plant and they lose it or something goes wrong.”
LSA junior Lauren Miles said she came to event because she was curious and had not gone to an event for Black Heritage Month yet. She said she wanted to know more about the water crisis in Flint.
“I knew of Flint, I didn’t really know the details of it and I really wanted to know the details because I keep on hearing things about water,” Miles said. “I took a one-credit class last year about water, it was more of a global view on water. This is another side of that conversation that is important; I think it’s everyone’s main concern.”
She added that though the event focused on Michigan, she thought anyone can learn from the issues discussed.
"I think we can take things from here and apply it to things that are happening all around the world,” she said.